The coup in Bamako, Mali on August 18 has consumed a lot of attention on the part of Malians and foreign analysts, including me – but significant events are unfolding in other parts of the country, too. Belatedly, I’m catching up on the non-coup news out of Mali.
One important story is coming out of the northern city of Gao (map). On August 20-21, violence in Gao claimed at least three lives. By August 23, calm was reportedly returning to the city.
Trying to sort out what happened plunges one, almost immediately, into competing accounts, rumors,* and even disinformation, as this report discusses (French).
One account (from the previous link) is that a young Arab was lynched by a crowd, and then “light-skinned” Arabs and Tuareg in the city, feeling targeted and abused, mobilized against the “black skinned” Songhoi (quoted phrases are from the linked article), who then in turn committed reprisals.
Another, perhaps compatible account says that the young Arab in question tried to rob a gold shop on August 16, ended up killing a security guard, and was then wounded, caught while fleeing, and burned alive by a crowd. Then on August 20, there was a drive-by shooting that killed two people at an outdoor youth hangout in Gao’s Aljannabandia neighborhood and resulted in the death of one other person who succumbed to his wounds later, at the hospital. On August 20 and 21 there were, reportedly, riots, road blockades, and targeted looting, especially of Arab-owned shops. By August 23, ground and air patrols by Malian and international forces, as well as meetings between community leaders, helped to restore calm.
Alongside the role of Facebook and other social media in amplifying tensions, there are at least two other crucial factors involved in the violence. First, Malian observers point to the “awakening of old demons” (French) from the 1990s; that is, inter-ethnic tensions are not new to Gao, and present-day violence draws on memories of earlier conflicts. Second, what we might call macro-politics or capital P Politics comes into play alongside the micro-politics of lynchings, looting, etc. – for example, one of the accounts linked above (link again here) says that the young Arab who died was a member of a signatory armed group, in other words a group that is a signatory to the 2015 Algiers Accord. If true, that would suggest that his death activated not just communitarian identities generally, but also specific and powerful political-military actors.
The major political ramifications of these events played out in the attempted peace-making process as well. Some very big deal players became brokers in the negotiations. On August 26, community leaders in Gao signed an accord that stipulates, among other measures, the disarmament of all actors other than the Malian armed forces, security forces, and signatories to the 2015 Algiers Accord. The Gao agreement also calls on all factions, including signatories to the Algiers Accord, to return to their bases and refrain from bearing arms in the city except in emergencies. The text of the Gao agreement is here:
Signatories to the Gao agreement included Aly Bady Maiga for the Songhoi, Mohamed Ould Mataly for the Arabs, Mohamed Youssouf Ghalass for the Tuareg, and Ibrahim Issa Diallo for the Peul.
Ould Mataly has two other distinctions: first, he is (or was, until the August 18 coup and ensuing dissolution of parliament) a deputy in the National Assembly; and second, he was sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council in 2019. The listing read, in part, “Through his involvement in organised crime and association with terrorist armed groups, Mohamed Ould Mataly threatens the implementation of the [Algiers] Agreement.”
Other signatories to the recent Gao agreement have also been accused of involving with narcotrafficking, funding militias, and other destabilizing activities – see the Peter Tinti’s mention of both Ould Mataly and Maiga in a 2014 report for the Global Initiative (p. 16).
Ould Mataly is closely associated with the Plateforme, a coalition of militias (sometimes described as “pro-government,” although lately I’ve been thinking that “anti-rebel” might be better) that is a signatory to the Algiers Accord. The Plateforme and Ould Mataly’s role within it are both extremely complex – see p. 3 of the February 2020 United Nations Panel of Experts report for a few details on intra-Plateforme tensions and splits, drug trafficking, and other political alignments and realignments in northern Mali. For the purposes of this post, though, the main point is just to reiterate that if the young Arab man who was lynched was indeed a member of a signatory group, perhaps the Plateforme, then that helps to explain why and how his death ultimately drew in some very big players in Gao.
Given all the politics and history surrounding not just the violence but also those individuals now spearheading an attempted resolution, some analysts are skeptical about the prospects for the latest agreement to bring peace. I leave you with Rida Lyammouri’s blunt words:
Here is the 2015 post Lyammouri is referencing.
*For a recent examination of the role of rumor in Mali, see this article by Adam Sandor.